Life Story

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau

While taking an informal class at Southern Methodist University on the Transcendentalists many years ago, this little nugget above landed as a handout on my desk. We were to be discussing Emerson and Thoreau for the next few weeks. I had no idea what it meant to ‘live deliberately’. I had felt I was already doing that until that deep pang for change began to churn year after year since the arrival of that quote that I stuck to my refrigerator door.

I had been experiencing much success in my real estate career over the past 16 years and owned a highly visible franchise firm. My life was good – or at least I thought it was. But that lingering comment from Thoreau kept pulling at me. I intuitively knew that I had not learned the essential facts of life. Yes, I was making money but there was that ‘something more’ that began to override everything else. While pumping gas into my car during another Texas summer heat wave, I experienced a blast of insight. I had to relocate my life and head into the next adventure.

I had always wanted to live in Paris, France but the language barrier for my daughter and I would be a real hindrance. Finding work would also have been difficult, I thought. I knew I wanted to be somewhere very old but needed to stay in my country. I was born in Connecticut and spent my young childhood in New England. On my last visit years ago, I made a particular trip to Concord, Massachusetts to visit the homes of some of the Transcendentalists. I had very eerie feeling when I was at Emerson’s home that I had been there before many times.

800px-Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_House_(Concord,_MA)Before I left that day, I picked up two bull’s-eye chestnuts that had fallen from the big tree next to Emerson’s front porch. I kept those chestnuts in my possession for years and now I knew why. I needed to move to Boston, Massachusetts. So within a couple of months, I sold my home and my business and purchased a home I found on the internet that looked exactly like Emerson’s white two story colonial. I was on my way to the next adventure. Not knowing a soul in Boston, it was both scary and exhilarating. I had never done anything this brave and I knew life had new things to teach. I was writing every morning in my journal recording all of this just like I had since I was 17 years old. It was all down.

I tackled the house in Boston as the entire place needed to be gutted. The owners must have chain smoked in there for 50 years; the depth of the nicotine on the horse hair and plaster walls was beyond anything I had ever seen. But after 3 months of living in a local hotel, the house was ready for a move-in. After seeing the type of renovation work I had done, the local library asked if I would allow the house to be on the ‘Home Tour’ to raise money for the Town. I absolutely was thrilled and obliged. It was at this point that my second career in Real Estate was born in Boston, Massachusetts.

So now that I had planted my ‘real estate’ roots once again, I began to ask myself, “What was the one thing that intimidated me in my life and what did I have to learn from that intimidation?” I knew right away it was about education. I never really had a college experience as I was a very young single mother. It took me ten years of night school, while working full time, to finish my Bachelor of Science degree in Business Finance. I scratched through 10 different colleges over those years to make that happen. So, I wanted to have a college experience at an Ivy League School – Harvard University. The thought of that literally made me shake in my old rugged and worn western cowboy boots.

I took out my quote again from Henry David Thoreau. Yep, this would be it. I obviously could not get into Harvard, nor afford it even if I could so I looked for other alternatives. I was overjoyed the day my path crossed with my soon-to-be benefactor, Elizabeth Dodson-Gray. She had co-founded a program at Harvard Divinity School called the Theological Opportunities Program (TOP) 20+ years earlier. It was held each week during both Winter and Spring semesters in the Braun Room at the Divinity School. It was here that my real college experience began.

I spent an entire year being completely intimated by the quality of people in that room, not to mention the amount of people that attended the varied lectures each week. There was even a woman in there that was a famous Neurosurgeon who had an entire wing of a hospital named after her. These were ‘famous’ people in their fields but sharing and exploring in a really vulnerable way. I became less afraid and began to feel the empowerment by just being there. After the lectures, I began to stay after to meet the speakers and began connecting with the co-founder, Elizabeth. As I met others, we would go to the campus cafes for readings and study groups. Some nights during the summer breaks, we would meet at different professors’ homes for intellectual discussion. I had never felt so invigorated.

As my comfort level grew by year three, I had become more entrenched and proactive in questioning lecturers from the audience. Some of the questions I posed were tough and I knew it. But it was an envelope I needed to push. I was approached soon after by Elizabeth with a request to speak around the issue of how to form new patterns and possibilities for life. I immediately agreed knowing this was the next frontier. Public speaking at an institution of higher learning that had intimidated the hell out of me. Well, I guess I was getting what I asked for from life. What did I have to learn from that?

It was September, 2001 and less than a week before I was to stand and speak from the podium to over 100 people at the University. I felt prepared and ready to take charge of my topic, “Weaving New Patterns and Possibilities for Life” until days before my lecture the twin towers were hit in New York City. We were told by the President to continue on with our lives, so that we did. The lecture was still ‘on’ but now I stood in front of a mostly numb stunned audience. Nothing I had written came out of my mouth that day instead it became a sharing of life’s experience and most particularly the meaning of impermanence. Another lesson in Thoreau’s essential facts of life…I had just lived it that day.

Seven more years had passed by after the talk I gave that day. My life work was presenting me with another huge challenge as the financial markets in America were collapsing. I knew I could no longer stay in the area I was living and needed to find a more stable real estate market and one that would emerge quicker from the fall out. This, after all, was not my first rodeo. I had already experienced two other market crashes in my real estate career. I knew a move across the country was inevitable. I also knew that I had learned what I needed to know. So, after rigorous study of the markets I selected Austin, Texas as the next great mecca of real estate momentum.

As I was having closure with all of my friends at Harvard, one of the last women I was in close contact with was an African American woman named, Florence Ladd. She so reminded me of Maya Angelo. She had been the head of the Butting Institute at M.I.T. I had told her and Elizabeth that I was in process of having to let go of so many things. The one that was most difficult were all of the journals that I had written since I was 17 years old. There was not a day that I had ever begun without writing.

It was the only way I had ever figured out to make sense of the world I lived in. As only three years later, I became a young single mother facing a world of all sorts of discrimination around that issue and unbelievable sexual stressors in the workplace. The fact that no one would rent me a decent place other than low income FHA housing as a place to live in because I was a single mother was beyond my comprehension. These were not things I had thought about before. But there they were. Hence, I had become a strong advocate for the underdog and an ardent member of the National Organization of Women (NOW). I had really thought women had pushed further than we had but upon reflection the year my own mother was born in 1919, women had just been granted the right to vote.

Florence and Elizabeth asked if they could have some of my early journals to read and I obliged for their perusal. Little did I know but they brought the journals over to the Curator of the Schlessinger Library, Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University to take a look as well. I think three days passed and I received a phone call from the Curator. She spoke at length with me to consider donating my ‘trunks’ of journals as a gift to Harvard University. She implied that there was a historical need for original handwritten recordings during the time period of my journaling. She asked me to visit the archives to see the Collection and encourage me. I had never met the Curator of a ‘Museum’ which is really what this was more than a library. She was most gracious as the stoic archive ‘guard’ of Women’s History in America that extended all the way back to 1635. Margaret Fuller’s writing was there from the Transcendental period, Helen Keller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, all the work of the great activist Betty Friedan and so many more courageous women.

We went down the elevator a couple of floors and entered into a really frigid room with rows and rows of closed cabinets. It was basically like a giant humidor. She spun open with a huge wheel one of the aisles and called me over to take a look at a little baby book she had pulled out. She opened it and asked me to touch the baby hair and proceeded to tell me that this was Amelia Earhart’s hair and this was her mother’s baby book for her. I looked up at her stunned and said, “Yes, my journals now all belong to you.” I left there that day, went out to my car, parked by the side curb in the back alley, and just wept.

Schlesinger_Library_-_Radcliffe_Yard,_Harvard_University,_Cambridge,_Massachusetts,_USA_-_DSC04489I was no longer intimidated by anything. I had been taught. The journals of my life are now preserved as, “The Private Collection of Marisue Mullins” at the Schlessinger Library, Harvard University.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau